Want to be a leader? Train your reflection skills!

Knowledge is power, yes, but it is not the sole quality you need to have to succeed in business. Dr. Magdalena Cholakova, Assistant Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University, knows this like no other. That is why she lets her students practice with situations they will encounter in their professional lives. Her goal: to help them develop core leadership skills, using an experiential learning approach, coupled with reflective writing.

‘My message here is that skill development is essential for a successful career nowadays’, Dr. Cholakova tells us. ‘We increasingly see companies looking for candidates with soft skills, such as leadership, negotiation or empathy for example. Yet, in many of our curriculum courses, there is only a limited emphasis on how to actually develop those skills.’

That’s where Dr. Cholakova comes in. ‘Skills can be trained’, she says, and that is exactly what she teaches her students. ‘The purpose of my course is to help students identify their core strengths and areas for improvement and help them sharpen both in order to match the current market realities.’


So how exactly does Dr. Cholakova do this? By roleplay, for example. In one of her workshops, she lets her students negotiate with each other in pairs. The students, in this case Helena and Casper, play two founders of a company who need to renegotiate the amount of equity that they should each have in their start-up. Helena came up with the idea for the company, but Casper is the technical genius and without him, the product they want to develop cannot be built. Casper is introverted, Helena extroverted; Casper usually tries to avoid conflicts, while Helena has a very competitive approach to conflict resolution.

Want to be a leader? Train your reflection skills!

Helena immediately admits that the role fits her profile quite naturally. ‘I might have to be a bit more accommodating’, Helena says, however, as she needs Casper to help her grow the company.  Casper, in turn, is much more introverted and conflict-avoidant, yet the present role requires him to step up in order to negotiate a better deal. That’s exactly what he does, as they start, which comes as a surprise for Helena. In the end, Casper doesn’t talk about just salary or equity in order to get what he wants, but tries to come up with different options to turn this situation into a win-win for both of them. For example, he explores some alternative benefits, such as asking Helena to pay for his kids’ tuition.

Dr. Cholakova lets them talk while also analysing their body language, the space between them, their eye contact and so on. Afterwards, they reflect on the negotiation together: what was most challenging for each and why?  What can they learn from their behaviour and how could they approach another negotiation differently in the future? 


Challenging? Perhaps. Dr. Cholakova: ‘But part of the course’s philosophy is that you work outside your comfort zone, which requires you to practice situations that are not always aligned with your personality and preferences. The reflection work after each class forces students to analyze their own characteristics and consider their influence on how they interact with others. This increases their awareness of their own and others’ behavior, and gradually equips them with a ‘toolkit’ for managing across different situations.’

‘Most of the exercises that I use are based on experiential learning, in order to really help students actively apply the concepts taught, reflect on them, and get a chance to re-apply them in order to improve throughout the duration of the course.’ ‘This type of exercises can help foster a growth mindset’, Dr. Cholakova says.

So what did Helena and Casper thought of this exercise? ‘It was tough’, Casper said, ‘but I have become a lot more aware of the things you can say and do to get your way.’ Helena adds: ‘The more work you put into the course, the more you can get out of it.’ As Dr. Cholakova says: 'Practising these skills is like a muscle that, if you train it effectively, can truly flesh out your talent and bring you closer to your aspirations.'

Assistant professor